About a month ago, Darrell and Pam Baker of Kannapolis found themselves strapped for cash and wondering how they would afford to feed their four dogs and cat.
"It got to be too much," Darrell Baker said. "I've had dogs all my life. If I had a last piece of bread, I'd have half and the animal would have the other half."
But that's when Petey's Promise stepped in to help. The Harrisburg-based nonprofit provides pet food and other supplies to pet owners in need, including the Bakers, who might otherwise be forced to give up their furry friends.
The Bakers' struggle has become common as residents coping with job losses and strained budgets try to care for pets while local animal advocates strain to keep up with calls for help.
Since the Humane Society of Concord & Greater Cabarrus County began in 1994, the organization has found homes for close to or more than 1,000 animals annually, according to founding members. In 2007, the Humane Society adopted out 1,012 animals.
But last year, they adopted out only 750 animals, and 28 of them were returned by their adopters, many of whom lost jobs or homes or simply couldn't afford to care for their pets. This year, adoption numbers are down and return rates are high.
The Humane Society's kennels, housed at Cabarrus County Animal Control's shelter off N.C. 49 in Concord, can hold up to about 14 dogs and about 12 cats. The Humane Society also runs Princeton's Meow, a cat facility on Brookwood Avenue Northeast in Concord that can hold up to 42 cats.
The organization receives its adoptable animals from animal control, which every week offers cats and dogs to the rescue group. The Humane Society takes as many as their kennels will hold.
Despite economic conditions that have left many struggling to care for their pets, the number of animals coming into animal control's shelter and the number of animals that have been euthanized have declined steadily since 2005.
In 2007, Cabarrus County Animal Control put to sleep 1,579 dogs and 2,100 cats. In 2009, the numbers were down to 1,385 dogs and 1,693 cats.
Lt. David Taylor, administrator of animal control for Cabarrus County Sheriff's Office, said he credits the decline to local rescue groups' efforts and a countywide push to encourage pet owners to spay and neuter their animals.
Although the numbers have improved, Taylor said animal control has seen an increase in the number of animals surrendered by owners. They're people who have lost their jobs and can't afford to keep their animals.
"We have quite a few folks who come in and say they don't know what else to do," Taylor said.
'You help the ones you can and pray for the rest'
Dr. Jenny Artman, a veterinarian who works with the Humane Society and South Ridge Veterinary Hospital in Kannapolis, said the economy has also affected the quality of pet care people can afford.
"Pet owners have a lot less ability to do ideal care for their pets, especially if emergency situations come up," Artman said. "They have to make tough choices."
She said many people can only afford to have their pets vaccinated for rabies and often bypass heartworm prevention and routine examinations.
Artman said she has recently begun to notice the situation improving. The veterinary hospital has been receiving fewer requests for help. But the Humane Society is as busy as ever, she said.
Judy Sims, an officer, adoption counselor and volunteer with the Humane Society of Concord and Greater Cabarrus County, said the organization noticed last year that it was receiving more calls from people who said they had lost their jobs and homes and had no choice but to give up pets.
She recalled a woman who sobbed when she had to give up her poodle after she lost her job and was evicted.
"One of the most devastating walks you can take is when you take someone's pet back to those kennels," Sims said. "It makes you cry."
When there is no room in the shelter, volunteers have worked to put many animals in foster homes.
"You help the ones you can and pray for the rest," Sims said.
At home, Sims and her husband, Mike, have 12 dogs, nine of which were adopted from the Humane Society. There's the two spotted English setters, a teacup Chihuahua with a biting problem, an abused beagle and a Pomeranian named Ginger, who was anemic and had worms when she was found abandoned outside of the shelter.
The Sims, both information technology managers who have been married almost eight years, have adopted dogs with health and behavioral problems - the dogs no one else would take. But they don't stop there. They spend about $300-$400 a month helping others pay veterinarian bills.
"We all do it," said Judy Sims of her fellow volunteers. "We probably do it too much. Mike and I have both been blessed with good jobs so we try to help when we can."
'I had no idea that the need was that huge'
Other organizations have stepped in to help.
Cabarrus Meals on Wheels started a pet food bank in 2007 - just as the economic crisis began - after volunteers noticed that the meals they delivered to elderly clients were being shared with pets. Now the organization provides pet food to 43 homes with dogs and 28 homes with cats.
"These pets are like their children," said Kimberly Strong, executive director of Cabarrus Meals on Wheels. "They love them. Sometimes they're the only ones they see every day."
Liz Mellott, president and co-founder of Petey's Promise, launched the organization in 2008 after reading an article that described how many people, particularly the elderly, had begun giving their own food to pets because they could no longer afford pet food.
Since word of Petey's Promise spread, the demand for help has grown significantly, she said.
"When we started, we thought we'd start with one here and one there," Mellott said. "It was unbelievable. I had no idea that the need was that huge."
The organization has fed more than 1,100 animals to date, according to a counter on its Web site. The number grows every day.
Some of Petey's Promise clients have lost their jobs. Others have been hit by unexpected bills. Many people don't have enough savings to pay for emergencies, Mellott said.
Her goal is to help people keep their pets at home. She wants to keep animals out of shelters.
"We don't want you to give that pet up," she said.